Sitting on a couch in a nook of the Peninsula Chicago’s lobby, the man in the brown sports coat could be anyone — local, tourist, salesman.
It’s a chameleonlike quality that comes in handy: He’s Inspector 40, an inspector with AAA, and his job is to visit hotels and restaurants — often anonymously — and score them according to the company’s Diamond-rating system.
In the past three decades, Inspector 40 has doled out enough diamonds to fill a mine. Last year alone, he inspected 664 hotels in Illinois, Wisconsin and Northern California.
Today, I’ve been invited along because I’m curious about the value of legacy rating systems, such as AAA and Forbes Travel Guide, at a time when everyone can be a critic on Yelp, TripAdvisor and other sites. I’d wager that few, if any, on Yelp and TripAdvisor have the training and experience of Inspector 40.
He introduces himself as an AAA inspector at the front desk of the Peninsula and requests a tour of the AAA Five Diamond property. (In the past, he has stayed here anonymously; today, on this unscheduled visit, he’s doing an update for the ratings guide and will be led through the facilities.) After a few minutes, a slender manager wearing a dark suit arrives, looking very serious. Over the next 90 minutes, he leads Inspector 40 through a variety of guest rooms (king, double, junior suite), into a business center and event space, around the gym, pool and spa and into the men’s locker room.
I’d expected pursed lips and a detached demeanor from a professional hotel critic, but I find Inspector 40 is approachable and quite complimentary while being thorough and focused.
In a bathroom: “Great lighting. I don’t wear makeup, but if I did I imagine I could do it here.”
In a guest room: “All these light fabrics. I can just say, ‘Congratulations, you keep this immaculate!’ ”
Walking down the stairs near a meeting room: “I imagine this is a photo op for brides?”
In the guest rooms, he opens drawers and examines the contents — coffee pods, coffee cups, a leather-bound notepad, office supplies. He runs his finger along frames and ledges, looking for dust. He opens and closes toilet lids. Along the way, he’s commenting on how hard it must be to keep the carpets clean and how durable marble is, while taking notes and rating everything on his tablet. Through it all, it’s clear the inspector has a keen awareness of germs: “Have you ever looked through a magnifying glass at what we breathe? It’s amazing we live as long as we live,” he says.
When the inspection wraps up, Inspector 40 meets with management and lets them know he will recommend the property for Five Diamonds, once again, and he shares some minor critiques. Then, he’s off to the next inspection.
Diamonds and stars
AAA began conducting hotel and restaurant inspections in 1937 as a travel-planning service to its motor club members. The AAA lodging Diamond rating guidelines were created in 1987, and with industry input, have been updated many times since to remain modern and relevant. The company awards one to five Diamonds to hotels, restaurants and campgrounds in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. Inspector 40 is one of nearly 50 inspectors working for AAA.
It’s one of two formal rating systems travelers hear about most. The other, Forbes Travel Guide, celebrated the 60th anniversary of its Star-rating system last year. Those guidelines were created by Mobil Travel Guide in 1958, but its name changed in 2009, when licensing under Mobil came to an end. Forbes Travel Guide took over, retaining the same standards.
Guidelines of the Star-rating system, which applies to spas as well as restaurants and hotels, are regularly refined by a team of more than 30 industry insiders, known as the Standards Advisory Committee, representing hotel, spa and restaurant brands. As with AAA, the system evaluates service as well as facilities, using a rating of “Recommended,” “Four Star” or “Five Star” (spas receive only Star ratings, not “Recommended”).
This year marked a first in the Forbes ratings’ 61-year history: Every one of the Peninsula’s 10 hotels snagged Five Stars, an unprecedented feat for a hotel brand. The Peninsula Manila gained a Star this year, making the sweep possible.
Forbes Travel Guide works with about 50 evaluators around the world, and they remain incognito, acting as an average guest would. Amanda Frasier, Forbes Travel Guide’s executive vice president for standards and ratings, says an evaluator will arrive at a hotel with a list of more than 500 criteria to score. He or she will note whether the car is quickly greeted in the porte cochere, whether the bellman is making natural eye contact and smiling, if the front-desk staff is showing genuine interest and listening, if the team’s uniforms look professional and more.
The tagline of Forbes Travel Guide is “we verify luxury,” and they do that, says Frasier, by relying on a set of consistent standards.
“We’re really just trying to give the consumer a clean, clear picture of what exactly they can expect, and whether you stay in a Four Star hotel in London or whether you stay in a Four Star hotel in New York, there are going to be some experiential similarities. Even though the look and feel might be different, the level of service you can expect to receive is going to be pretty much on par,” she says.
Beyond formal ratings
While AAA and Forbes Travel Guide ratings are often proudly displayed by hotels, everyone interviewed for this story agreed that crowdsourced, online critiques are also valuable.
Look up the American Club in Kohler, Wis., on Yelp and TripAdvisor and it gets four and four-and-a-half stars out of five, respectively. That’s not too far off from AAA and Forbes Travel Guide, which both award the resort the most elite ratings: Five Diamonds and Five Stars.
To industry insiders like Christine Loose, vice president of lodging and wellness for Kohler Co., the rating systems are “very different creatures.” Both, she admits, cause her to lose sleep.
Industry ratings, she says, are very objective and based on specific criteria. Crowdsourced reviews are much more subjective. “Those are people who have just spent their money. It’s come out of their paycheck. And they tend to skew either really positive or not positive. I believe they’re an emotional product because it’s their hard-earned money,” says Loose.
Pierre-Louis Giacotto, general manager of the Blackstone in Chicago, says that AAA and Forbes Travel Guide keep hoteliers on their toes.
“They have standards that really force you to push up and not be complacent in being OK,” he says. Lately, those newer standards have put an emphasis on improved technology — like having a tablet in the room, or encouraging green practices — and that incentivizes the hotel to continue evolving.
“The goal is not to only please one person; the goal is to please everyone and to do the service consistently,” says Giacotto. “Yes, it’s great that we do a good job for the inspector, but I want to do a good job for 100 percent of the people that come in every day.”